The basics of education in Indiana

The basics of charter schools in Indiana: A mayor’s big role

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

(This story is one in a series exploring the basics of key issues in education in Indiana. For a list of the issues and links to the other stories in the series, go here.)

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately operated public schools that are tuition-free. The schools are overseen by governing boards that report to a sponsoring organization that gives the school permission to operate and can close down schools that don’t meet academic performance goals. Some governing boards hire for-profit or non-profit management companies to run the schools.

Charters are controversial. Proponents argue that they create more options for students to find a good fit for their interests and skills and create competitive pressure for all schools to educate students better in order to attract higher enrollment and the state aid dollars that come with those students. Critics say the schools are no better, and often worse, than the traditional public schools from which they drain students and money and that the schools are less publicly accountable as their boards are not elected.

The charter school movement in Indiana differs from other states’ in that it’s been a little slower moving, differently managed from most places and, proponents argue, somewhat better in quality overall than in other parts of the country.

The mayor’s unusual role

Indiana’s 2001 charter law remains the only one in the country that gives a city mayor — the mayor of Indianapolis — the ability to sponsor charter schools. Both ex-mayor Bart Peterson, a Democrat, and current mayor Greg Ballard, a Republican, have aggressively chartered schools in the city.

Originally, charter sponsoring also was available to universities and school districts. But for a decade the Indianapolis mayor was joined by just one other major sponsor — Ball State University. With just two active sponsors, charter schools expanded more slowly in Indiana than in most states with more expansive laws.

Perhaps as a result, Indiana’s charter schools looked different in other ways, too. For one, there were more homegrown charter schools in the Hoosier state and fewer national organizations operating charters in the state. Examples of homegrown charters are the Tindley Acclerated School, Christel House Academy, and Herron High School. There were some national chains, notably Concept Schools, Heritage Academies and KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program).

Sponsoring expands

Today, Ballard is still the only mayor in the country sponsoring charters. But in 2011, the legislature expanded chartering authority in two ways. It allowed private, nonprofit universities to sponsor charters and created a new statewide charter school board with sponsoring powers.

The law has helped fuel a recent expansion of charters. In 2012 and 2013, 21 new charters have opened, or a 50 percent increase. Also helping the expansion is a cooperative effort by the mayor’s office and The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based education reform organization, to create a charter school incubator. The effort seeks to aid high-performing charters to replicate with new schools and to attract high-performing charter organizations around the country to come to Indianapolis.

Concerns also have been raised about whether more sponsors allow schools to “shop” for more accommodating oversight, allowing schools that are less likely to perform well to avoid accountability. In 2015, the legislature is considering new limits on charter sponsors aimed at preventing charter shopping.

Performance debated

There is considerable debate about the performance of charter schools in Indiana. Critics point out that charters generally rank in the bottom half of schools in the state for test performance, but advocates argue they compare well against the schools they were designed to compete with — those with high poverty and other challenges located nearby.

A pair of studies by Stanford University have shown Indiana’s charter schools have generally performed well when compared to charters in other states. The study’s authors have argued that the Hoosier state was helped by mostly choosy sponsoring by the Indianapolis mayor’s office and Ball State, which both rejected far more charter applications than they approved.

And yet the authors were critical of Ball State for allowing a small number of low-performing charters to keep operating. Soon after, the university ordered several of the low performers closed in 2013. A few managed to stay open by finding new sponsors, raising questions about whether Indiana’s charter law is strong enough to force low performers to close when their sponsors believe they should.

Access to new funding

In the 2015 legislative budget debate, Gov Mike Pence pushed for a big $1,500 per-student grants for charter schools for outside-of-the-classroom costs like buildings and busing. That would have cost the state about $90 million over two years. Instead, the legislature set aside $10 million for grants of up to $500 per-student to help charter schools with those costs.

But all charter schools won’t qualify. Only those that received either an “A,” “B,” or “C” grade from the state or can show they out-perform nearby traditional public schools are eligible.

The issues ahead

On the horizon, along with more charter schools, are questions about whether charters and school districts can forge working partnerships, especially in Indianapolis.

In 2014, the Indiana legislature passed a bill giving IPS the authority to hand empty buildings over for charter schools to use, or to hire charter school operators to run an IPS school.

Under these “innovation school” partnerships, IPS could count partner schools’ test scores in district averages. Charters would get space in IPS buildings and possibly district services like transportation and special education as well. The first such partnership will be wlith the Phalen Leadership Academy charter school at IPS School 103 in the fall of 2015.

The idea behind the bill, which IPS superintendent Lewis Ferebee helped craft, was strongly opposed by by unions and Democrats.

The Indiana State Teachers Union has argued the bill creates a newly uneven playing field for teachers when it comes to their bargaining rights. The bill permits the charter operators to hire teachers for the schools they run — even if they remain IPS schools — and disregard the district’s union contract when deciding what the pay and benefits will be.

In 2012, annual teacher pay in Indianapolis charter school, on average, was $10,000 to $25,000 less than IPS.

Also the state has seen a trend toward expanded offerings of online and blended learning charter schools, which shift some or all instruction to online venues. More than 10 such schools are on the drawing board to open in the next five years.

Can the city sustain so many new schools along with the traditional public and private school networks? Or can charters and traditional schools work more closely to share services and building space? Those are big unanswered questions going forward.

-Updated December 2015

The basics of...

The basics of Jennifer McCormick: Political newcomer struggles to set herself apart

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Jennifer McCormick

This is one of two stories summarizing the basics facts about Indiana’s two major party candidates for state superintendent. A more detailed story about Jennifer McCormick’s policy positions can be found here. To learn more about Glenda Ritz, go here. To see all of Chalkbeat’s “basics” stories, go here. To read all of Chalkbeat’s 2016 election coverage, go here.

Tune in to our live blog on Election Day for highlights from the field and updates on the races as results trickle in.

As the political newcomer to this year’s race for Indiana state superintendent, Republican Jennifer McCormick has had to spend a lot of time telling voters who she isn’t.

She isn’t Glenda Ritz, she’s said, emphasizing that as a former teacher and principal who has spent the last 12 years as a top administrator in the Yorktown school district, she has experience as a steady, organized manager that she says Ritz lacks.

And she says she isn’t Tony Bennett, the education reform-darling who lost in a huge upset to Ritz in 2012, either.

In fact, McCormick falls somewhere between the two: She’s a career public school educator and district leader with policies not entirely unlike Ritz’s. But she also has the backing of the Republican party and advocates who’ve pushed to expand charter schools and private school vouchers.

Although McCormick has been more supportive of charter schools and vouchers than Ritz has been, the Yorktown superintendent says she’s concerned about the way school choice efforts divert money from public schools and vehemently denies suggestions that she would want to see them expand.

On the campaign trail, McCormick has tried to steer the conversation away from controversial policy matters toward what she sees as her strong suit: Her years of leadership running schools and districts.

The New Castle native has spent her career in Yorktown, a traditional public school district in northeastern Indiana that enrolls about 2,500 students K-12. Her school district is wealthier, whiter and faces few of the challenges that confront urban and rural districts across the state.

Yorktown school board president Tom Simpson said McCormick has worked to provide more computers and tablets to students and has made a point of ensuring that teachers are trained to use and teach with the devices. She’s also worked over the years to help the district adapt to its growing population.

How she’ll govern

It’s still not clear what kind of relationship McCormick would have with lawmakers if elected. Although her policies don’t necessarily line up with those of Republican legislative leaders, the fact that she brings none of Ritz’s baggage after four years of clashes with Republican Gov. Mike Pence could ease tensions and lead to smoother working relationships.

But McCormick’s lack of policy experience and adamant statements that she won’t engage in “politics” could also mean she underestimates the work needed guide her vision through the sometimes-thorny Indiana legislature.

Plus, should both she and John Gregg, the Democrat running for governor, prevail, there’d once again be a political division between the state’s top education leader and top executive, who is responsible for appointing the majority of members to the state board of education.

On the issues

McCormick’s positions on many state education issues are similar to those of her opponent. She largely agrees with Ritz on the need for an A-F grade overhaul, more school funding, and adding support and pay for teachers.

Here’s a rundown of her positions:

Vouchers. McCormick said while she supports the power of parents to choose the best school for their children, she’s not interested in expanding programs that divert money from public schools.

Testing. While Ritz has called for a new kind of test that would be given to students in chunks throughout the year and provide feedback to teachers, McCormick said she would be in favor of adopting the SAT, or something like it, for high school students and keeping a simple, ISTEP-like test for elementary and middle school students.

Preschool. While Ritz has campaigned strongly for a “universal” preschool plan for all Indiana four year-olds, funded with what she anticipates would be $150 million per year from the state’s budget, plus federal and private grants, McCormick has called for a more conservative approach — at least at first. She says the state should prioritize students who are struggling or from low-income families rather than offer pre-K to kids with more resources.

2016 Indiana governor race

The basics of Eric Holcomb on education: Moving past the policy wars

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
The 2016 Republican nominee for Indiana governor Eric Holcomb.

This is one of two stories summarizing the basics facts about Indiana’s two major party candidates for governor when it comes to education. A more detailed story about Eric Holcomb’s policy positions can be found here. To learn more about John Gregg, go here. To see all of Chalkbeat’s “basics” stories, go here. To read all of Chalkbeat’s 2016 election coverage, go here.

Tune in to our live blog on Election Day for highlights from the field and updates on the races as results trickle in.

Eric Holcomb has promised to be different from his predecessor when it comes to education if elected governor.

The Republican candidate says he’ll avoid the loud political fights that defined Gov. Mike Pence’s battles with Democratic state Superintendent Glenda Ritz.

But Holcomb’s education policies are largely in line with Pence’s.

The Republican candidate took Pence’s place on the ballot in July after Pence dropped out of the race to join Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump as his vice presidential running mate.

As a result of his late entry into the race, Holcomb’s education policies are less detailed than his opponent, Democrat John Gregg who is making his second run for governor after losing a close race to Pence in 2012.

Holcomb has also never before been elected to public office. So, unlike the former House speaker Gregg, he has little track record of votes or positions on the issues.

But in interviews, Holcomb, 48, has emphasized a desire to work more collaboratively with the next superintendent — Ritz or her Republican opponent, Jennifer McCormick — to try to move on from the many battles between Pence and Ritz.

Holcomb also says he wants a better state test to replace ISTEP, but he has struggled to explain how his vision for the exam would be different from the much maligned test that the state has used in recent years.

Early lessons and role models

Holcomb’s mother was a teacher, so he spent hours at her side when she was grading papers, both at home and after school. He credits her as his earliest example of work ethic and the value of learning.

After graduating Pike High School in Indianapolis and Indiana’s Hanover College, he spent six years in the Navy and then got involved in politics. For the next 20 years, Holcomb worked for Indiana Republicans, but nearly all of his work was out of the public eye.

He started out as an aide to Indiana congressman John Hostettler before first dipping his toe into politics with an unsuccessful run for congress in 2000.

He served as a campaign adviser to Mitch Daniels during Daniels’ first run for governor in 2003 then stayed on, working in the Daniels administration for seven years.

In 2010, Holcomb took over as state Republican Party chairman, a job he held for three years before leaving to become chief of staff to Repbulican U.S. Sen. Dan Coats.

Holcomb attempted his second run for office in 2013 when he ran for his boss’ seat after Coats announced his retirement, but ended up dropping out of that race when Pence offered him the lieutenant governor job in March.

If Holcomb wins the election on Nov. 8, it will be his first elective victory, so voters don’t have much a personal record they can review. It’s not clear how closely Holcomb will follow the lead of the two Republican governors he served, both of whom shaped a more aggressive Republican education strategy that included more test-based accountability for teachers, students and schools, and support for expanding vouchers and charter schools.

A different tone at the statehouse

Despite his connections to Daniels and Pence, Holcomb has said he wants to set a new tone as governor that would be more cooperative than during the education battles of the last two administrations.

Under Daniels, the state expanded charter school sponsoring, launched the state private school voucher program, established an A-F school grading system and put in place a tough new teacher evaluation system.

After Ritz, a Democrat, scored an upset win in the 2012 superintendent’s race, Pence moved aggressively to block the policy changes she proposed.

The cumulative effect left many teachers feeling weary of politics and unfairly attacked.

From his introduction as a gubernatorial candidate, Holcomb has pledged to take steps to improve the relationship with the state superintendent and show more overt support for teachers.

Big differences with Democrats remain

On policy, Holcomb and Ritz are still far apart. Consider:

Testing. Ritz wants to junk the state’s ISTEP exam in favor of a series of smaller tests that could be scored more quickly and the results returned faster to teachers to use in the classroom. She has argued her approach would reduce test anxiety around the once-a-year exam for students and make the exams more useful.

Holcomb insists the state test should only be given once a year. He also has called for the scores to be delivered to teachers more quickly but has not explained how to do that while keeping the same basic design as ISTEP.

School choice. Holcomb describes himself as a strong supporter of school choice programs, like charter schools and vouchers. And he said he wants the state to take action to try to improve schools with persistently low test scores, even if it’s not necessarily through controversial state takeovers of local schools that the state tried under Daniels.

Preschool. Even where he agrees with Ritz and Gregg — that the state should expand its preschool pilot program — Holcomb takes a different approach. He said he does not think the state should offer to pay for preschool for any four-year-old who enrolls as Ritz and Gregg have proposed, just those from poor families. He also envisions a slower expansion of the five-county pilot that serves about 1,500 poor children today, perhaps a few more counties at a time.